June 25, 2012 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

This month, Environmental Health News has been running a fantastic series of stories in a series entitled “Pollution, Poverty, People of Color.” The editors planned the publication around the 30th anniversary of protests in Warren County, North Carolina, which are widely credited with launching the environmental justice movement. In 1982, residents of Warren County — a predominantly black, low-income area — learned that the state was planning to build a hazardous-waste landfill there to hold thousands of cubic yards of PCB-contaminated soil. Activists Deborah Ferruccio and Reverend Willie T. Ramey III describe to EHN’s Cheryl Katz how community quickly organized against the landfill, with black and white residents united for protest marches. Environmental justice pioneer Robert Bullard describes the Warren County protests in his book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, noting that local grassroots groups were soon joined by “national civil rights leaders, black elected officials, environmental activists, and labor leaders.” The protests didn’t stop the landfill from happening, but Ferruccio and Ramey agree that the toxic dumping would have been far more extensive had the community not responded. “We just could not sit still and lay down and play dead and let people come in and make our county a waste site,” Ramey told EHN.

Soon, communities across the country were making the same choice to raise their voices rather than simply watch contamination come to their communities. Today, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson lists environmental justice as one of the seven priorities for the agency’s future, and a Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice guides and supports environmental justice activities of 17 federal agencies and several White House offices. Nonetheless, nationwide improvements in environmental health have not been enjoyed equally by all. As EHN’s series illustrates, environmental injustice persists.

The series’ first article focuses on the San Francisco Bay-area communities of Richmond and North Richmond, where a population composed mostly of low-income African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians contends with fumes from five refineries, heavily used rail and truck routes, and other sources of pollution. Violations of air-quality regulations are more frequent in Richmond than in other parts of the region, Jane Kay and Cheryl Katz report. Residents are disproportionately likely to end up in emergency departments with asthma attacks and to die of stroke or heart disease, although it can be hard for epidemiologists studying the causes of these health disparities to disentangle the effects of pollution from confounding factors like smoking and diet. The good news in Richmond is that a multi-cultural coalition of residents has organized in support of an official guide for land use that incorporates environmental justice into city policy. The result of a six-year process, the plan was recently passed by the city council. Kay and Katz report in the series’ second piece:

Richmond is emblematic of a movement underway across the nation. Environmental justice is a growing effort to address a dangerous divide: Minority and low-income communities tend to encounter far greater environmental risks and far less protection than more affluent, white communities. Major forces behind this are racial segregation and discrimination, income gaps and social inequality, coupled with a politically powerless and naïve populace unable to advocate for itself.

Similar efforts are taking place nationwide, such as a coalition of African-Americans and Latinos stopping a sewage treatment plant from being built in their Northern Manhattan neighborhood, and a multicultural group in Boston helping local communities fight, among other things, a diesel power plant slated to be built next to an elementary school.

“These are environmental sacrifice zones that the environmental justice movement has been fighting for 30 years,” said Robert D. Bullard, dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, who is considered the “father” of environmental justice.

Polluting poor, minority neighborhoods “is often seen as the price of doing business,” he said. “When you elevate the rights of corporations to pollute over the rights of people to have a clean environment, then you get this pattern of unequal protection. That’s why we get communities like Richmond.”

In Richmond, population 103,701, one in six residents lives below the federal poverty level, and more than eight in 10 are people of color, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. In North Richmond, next to one of the nation’s largest refineries, 97 percent of residents are non-white and nearly one in four live in poverty.

The plight of Richmond, within a ring of five refineries, three chemical plants, eight Superfund sites and numerous other pollution sources, has turned many local residents of all colors into activists, and drawn the attention of sociologists, legal scholars and scientists.

Now its city hall is an example of one that is “listening to and forced to respond to environmental justice activists,” said Jason Corburn, an associate professor of city and regional planning in the school of public health at UC-Berkeley. He studies environmental justice movements and was an advisor on early stages of developing the new general plan. “Organizations like APEN [Asian Pacific Environmental Network] were instrumental in the last couple of years in shifting the balance of power at the city council.”

Stories in the rest of the “Pollution, Poverty, People of Color” series tackle a range of environmental health issues in communities across the US:

  • Stress + pollution = health risks for low-income kids, by Lindsey Konkel: Research suggests that stress — like the constant pressure of violent crime in communities such as Worcester, Massachusetts — may exacerbate the harmful impacts of lead and other pollution on children.
  • No beba el agua. Don’t drink the water, by Liza Gross: In East Orosi, California, homes to hundreds of Latino farmworkers, many residents spend large portions of their limited incomes on bottled water to avoid using tap water that’s contaminated with nitrates.
  • Sacred water, new mine: A Michigan tribe battles a global corporation, by Brian Bienkowski: In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Keweenaw Bay tribe are fighting to preserve their water and spriritual gathering place from intrusion and potential contamination by mining operations.
  • Dirty soil and diabetes: Anniston’s toxic legacy, by Brett Tulis: After widespread chemical contamination from a Monsanto plant was discovered in West Anniston, Alabama, most residents of this high-poverty, predominantly African-American community moved out, and those remaining have few neighbors. Many residents have developed diabetes at a rate far above average, and research suggests high PCB exposures may contribute to developing the disease.
  • Falling into the ‘climate gap,’ by Doug Struck: Low-income communities like East Boston, a neighborhood home to many immigrants, are especially vulnerable to floods and other extreme weather events that will become more common as climate disruption continues.
  • Asthma and the inner city: East St. Louis children struggle with life-threatening disease, by Crystal Gammon: Rates of asthma are especially high among urban African-American children living in poverty, like those at one East St. Louis daycare center where the staff have witnessed many near-deadly asthma attacks.

As for solving these problems nationwide, Day 10 of the series features two perspectives.  Rev. Jim Demin of the United Church of Christ highlights “interfaith bonds of community and action,” including UCC resolutions emphasizing three strategies to reduce fossil-fuel burning and consumerism: “change personal and family habits, collaborate with others to reduce environmental harm, and tell public policy-makers at all levels that climate change is a moral issue that demands a new direction.” Rachel Morello-Frosch of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley has two recommendations for policymakers:

First, regulatory agencies must address the double jeopardy of environmental risks and social stressors in their siting and permitting decisions and enforcement activities. … Second, local, state, and federal agencies should enhance public participation in regulatory decision-making.

These strategies are in use in some communities, but overall, Morello-Frosh writes, “Even today, 30 years after the birth of the environmental justice movement, the burden of proof still is placed on communities to demonstrate hazards and push for action.”

Put Environmental Health News’ “Pollution, Poverty, People of Color” series on your reading list – it’s a stellar portrait of a pervasive public health problem.

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